The Little Rock Zoo finds itself hemmed inside a shrinking city park, beset by rising operating costs and declining financial aid from Little Rock city government, and now challenged to comply with conflicting master plans.
Since 2001, the zoo has operated under a master plan prepared by a private consultant. The zoo’s plan was expected to be operable for 20 years or so, and some of its goals have been met, such as the creation of a new African veldt exhibit, and completion of Cafe Africa. But now the zoo’s plan has bumped up against a city government plan for development of War Memorial Park, where the zoo is located. For example:
The zoo planned for a new entry complex on the north side. Zoo director Mike Blakely said he envisioned amusement-park rides there — “maybe some old rides, like bumper cars,” as well as the zoo’s 90-year-old carousel, which would have been moved from its present location. But this proposal doesn’t jibe with the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department’s plans for War Memorial. The zoo also had figured on the War Memorial golf course being redesigned, so that the property where three holes are now located would be transferred to the zoo for expansion. The Parks Department says the golf course will be redesigned, all right, but not to provide more space for the zoo. The Parks Department sees possible zoo expansion occurring on the south side of the park, crossing Interstate 630, perhaps including pedestrian bridges across the interstate.
“Going south is a challenge,” Blakely said. Building a couple of pedestrian bridges would be expensive and require approval by the state Highway Department. Mass transportation — a tram, say — is another possibility, but it brings problems, and expense, too. And expansion southward would entail purchase of land now privately owned.
Until recently, the zoo had hopes of expanding onto the old Ray Winder Field property in War Memorial Park just east of the zoo. The abandoned baseball stadium awaits demolition. But city officials have decided to sell the land to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, for that institution’s planned expansion. The transaction is still in progress, but when it’s completed, the zoo is supposed to get 3.3 acres of the ballpark property, far less than it had hoped for. Blakely said this new land might be used for expansion of Boo at the Zoo, a big fundraiser held every year around Halloween. Or it might be used for parking, always a problem at the zoo and especially during attacks of “yellow fever,” when the existing parking lots overflow with school buses.
Zoo officials had hoped to get all of the Ray Winder property and establish on it an elephant-breeding program that would have been unique in this part of the country. That dream is dead now. The zoo’s elephant population will remain at two, both mature females.
(And the zoo’s panda population will remain at zero. Mayor Mark Stodola was skeptical of the elephant-breeding program and once said he’d rather have pandas at the Little Rock Zoo. Blakely said that’s not feasible. To get one or more pandas, a zoo must pay fees to the Chinese government, hire Chinese staff to care for the pandas, and install an exhibit that includes other Chinese flora and fauna, he said. And besides that, there are already pandas in this area, at the Memphis Zoo.)
The zoo needs a new master plan, Blakely said. It would cost maybe $100,000 to $150,000 and be done by a private consultant, like the old plan, but there would be input from a wide range of sources — zoo administrators, the Arkansas Zoological Foundation (a private group that raises money for the zoo), city directors, zoo patrons, the Parks and Recreation Department. Once, there would have been no conflict between zoo plans and Parks and Recreation plans, because the zoo was part of the Parks and Recreation Department. In 1999, the zoo was made a separate department of city government.
The way money is spent now, $150,000 doesn’t sound like a lot. But it is a lot to the zoo, which must pay most of its own way even though it’s an agency of city government. This year, the city is providing $1.6 million of the zoo’s $4.4 million budget. The rest comes from admissions, donations, concessions, parking fees and special events, like Boo at the Zoo and the Recent Wild Wines of the World. The year before, the zoo budget was $5.3 million. It shrank because the city reduced its contribution.
The Zoological Foundation is looking at ways to pay for a new master plan. A private-public arrangement has been mentioned, but “The city doesn’t have any money,” Blakely said. “The Parks Department has the same problems we do. We can’t hire enough people to maintain the property properly. The green spaces don’t get mowed as often as they should, and the leaves don’t get raked as often. We couldn’t get by without our volunteers. We have at least 200 of them.” The day a reporter called, the receptionist in the zoo administration office was a volunteer, working for free.
Making matters worse, the zoo can’t even spend all of its budget the way it would prefer. The zoo must contribute $500,000 every year to help pay for the Clinton Library. That arrangement goes back to the days when the zoo was part of the Parks Department. There are other non-zoo costs, too. Susan Altrui, director of marketing and development at the zoo, said, “Close to $1 million of the zoo budget isn’t related to actual hard costs of running the zoo.”
Obviously, paid admissions are important to the zoo, and the concession sales that increase when attendance does. Altrui hopes that admissions will increase substantially when a new penguin exhibit opens around Labor Day. Penguins are hot.
What the zoo really needs, according to Blakely and Altrui, is a new revenue source dedicated just to the zoo. Some city officials have talked about a half-cent increase in the city sales tax, with the proceeds designated for the zoo and the Parks Department.
Every zoo is suffering in the current economic downturn, Blakely said. The zoo is always an attractive place to cut city services when cuts are needed. “When zoo directors get together now, they don’t talk about new exhibits,” Blakely said. “They talk about ‘How many layoffs have you had?’ But we all expect things to get better.” They expect zoos to survive, in other words. Some people these days, some interest groups, find zoos old-fashioned and unnecessary.
“We believe the zoo improves the quality of life for all Arkansans,” Blakely said. The Little Rock Zoo is the only zoo in Arkansas, and one of only 200 zoos nationwide that are accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, though some 2,000 zoos are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Little Rock Zoo draws nearly 300,000 visitors a year, Altrui said, and “A study found that 75 percent of the visitors come from outside Little Rock. They spend money in restaurants and gas stations. Doubling the size of the zoo would double the attendance. We feel that if the zoo grows, the Little Rock economy would grow too.
“The idea that the zoo is antiquated is completely untrue,” Altrui said. “Nationally, more people attend zoos than attend sports events or concerts. More than 175 million people visited an AZA zoo or aquarium in 2009. At the zoo, you can see animals you’d never have a chance to see otherwise. You can be educated. A zoo is important for attracting business and residents to a city. In cities like Memphis and Akron, Ohio, the zoo is looked at as a pillar of economic development, besides being important culturally.”
Akron is similar to Little Rock in population and in size of the zoo. But the budget for the Akron Zoo is almost twice as big as Little Rock’s.